Thursday, December 11, 2014

A last Christmas tune for Clayville-Prairieland jam sessions: "Cherry Tree Carol" -- and some thoughts on improvising

After some of us started playing and singing "The Cherry Tree Carol" from memory last week at the Clayville Christmas party, I went looking for it on line. It was that song about Joseph, Mary, the Christ child and the cherry tree. And I found some tab by dulcimer historian Ralph Lee Smith and Maddie MacNeil, founding editor-publisher of Dulcimer Players News.

Ralph is a nice guy, an inspiring teacher and author of the standard history of the Appalachian dulcimer. And his version of "Cherry Tree Carol," collected in Kentucky in 1914, is a lovely piece of music. The song, one of the "Child ballads" (No. 54) collected in the 1800s by Francis James Childs, is much older than that -- it was being sung in England as early as 1400 AD on the feast of Corpus Christi. We know it in the US as one of the southern Appalachian ballads with origins in English folksong that Cecil Sharp collected a hundred years ago.

The dulcimer tab, with backup chords and the melody in standard notation, is in Folk Songs of Old Kentucky, published by Mel Bay. Click on Click here to open and click on link at top that says, "Print This Article (PDF)."

While the song has been covered by numerous artists since Joan Baez recorded it in 1961, I'll only link you to three YouTube clips -- two vocals and an instrumental by the Mark O'Connor bluegrass band that got me to thinking about improvising, which is sometimes just a fancy word for playing by ear.

Here's the Mark O'Connor band:

Jerry Rockwell, a dulcimer builder of southeastern Ohio who has written some good stuff on music theory for mountain dulcimer, has an essay on "Improvisation" that makes improv accessible to us all. He relates to the noodling around he did as a teenager:

So after many, many hours of spinning vinyl, and a few hints from friends; I began to get the hang of playing by ear -- I learned to copy note-for-note the guitar solo in the Kingsmen's Louie, Louie, as well as all of George Harrison's lead parts. Something else started happening at the same time, though: I began to "noodle" with my guitar. With a sense of childish curiosity, I began to run some melody notes right through a chord position -- just to see how it would sound. Or I would go on extended melodic excursions way up the fingerboard; back down and around: all the time having NO CLUE what I was doing! I did waste alot of time noodling like this, but I gained something very important: I got a direct connection to the guitar as a means of expression. After a while, it felt very natural to pick up the guitar and just start to make music: a blues line would emerge, giving rise to another one, and so on.

This experiential time with the guitar was absolutely critical to my early development as a musician(and remains in first place to this day, whether I'm playing dulcimer, 5th-tuned guitar, standard-tuned guitar, or whatever), and the best news of all is that it is GREAT FUN! I highly recommend this undisciplined, exploratory style of music-making: Its a sort of "communion" with the soul, where you can touch some deep and wonderful -- and occasionally tumultuous -- areas of yourself.

Listen to the Mark O'Connor band again. Notice how they swap out on melody, rhythm and harmony riffs and how they blend it all together. O'Connor writes classical symphonies and concertos in addition to bluegrass, and I would not call his arrangement here improvised. But it's grounded in the same noodling Jerry Rockwell did when he learned the chords to "Louie Louie." We can do it, too.

The first vocal is by Jean Ritchie, now of Berea, Ky. She's one of very few people who has contributed more to the Appalachian dulcimer revival than Ralph Lee Smith, and here she sings "Cherry Tree Carol" a cappella in the old Appalachian style. In the 1950s she got a Fulbright scholarship to collect British and Irish variants of songs she knew from her family heritage in Kentucky. Picture shows Paddy Clancy of the Clancy Brothers (with concertina), Jean Ritchie (standing in back), Tom Clancy (sitting in front of her) and Robin Roberts (with guitar) at Jean Ritchie's New York City apartment, in 1954.

Jean Ritchie is an accomplished musician, but her a cappella singing here is very traditional, the way she bends notes and freely adapts the melody to the cadence of her words -- she isn't counting strict time here, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 like a metronome. This is the way our music sounded when it came over from the British Isles.

Finally, here's a performance by the English rock musician Sting, live in Durham Cathedral in 2009. His accompaniment couldn't be any more minimalist, but listen for how much three little notes can add to a piece of music:

Ralph's and Maddie's version of "Cherry Tree Carol" was collected in 1914 by Josephine McGill. Ralph's discography is available at

Douglas D. Anderson's website The Hymns and Carols of Christmas has detailed notes on the "Cherry Tree Carol" and its history from the 15th century on. Included is this reminiscence of the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, an English hymn writer and classical musician, in 1884 -- "while teaching carols to a party of mill-girls, [he] began to relate the carol by Dr. H. J. Gauntlett, 'Saint Joseph was a-walking,' ... when they interrupted him, saying 'Nay! we know one a deal better nor yond'; and, lifting up their voices, they sang, to a curious old strain …"

* * *

In January, we'll meet Saturday, Jan. 3, in the Batterton Cabin at Clayville, and Tuesday, Jan. 6, at Atonement Lutheran CHurch in Springfield. In addition to being the feast of Epiphany, Jan. 6 was known as "Old Christmas" in the southern Appalachian mountains where the present calendar that was adopted in the 1700s was greeted with hostility and suspicion. Kids used to get their presents on Old Christmas, and it was considered the end of the holiday season. (More here in the Dictionary of American Regional English.) In the last verse of "Cherry Tree Carol," the Christ child says:

Then Joseph took Mary all on his left knee:
“O tell me, little baby, when Thy birthday will be?”

The sixth day of January my birthday will be,
When the stars in the elements shall tremble with glee.

So it all (kinda) fits together.

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